Politics, at least in a democracy, is competitive. The analogy to sports may be simplistic but it’s not too far off the mark. Participants seek to win, and to do so in accordance with rules constraining behavior that’s plainly unfair or dangerous.
The rewards for winning athletes can include fame, wealth and pride in their accomplishments. The rewards for winning politicians can include fame, pride and perhaps a degree of enhanced earning potential should they go back to private pursuits.
But the real prize for the successful politician is power. By no means does that necessarily mean power wielded for personal advantage – although the perquisites of office can be difficult to give up once enjoyed. The essence of this power is the ability to influence the course of government, or even society at large, in keeping with one’s ideas as to what that course should be.
Politicians convinced of the rightness of their beliefs and the beneficial effect of their policies will scrap and claw to win elections just as athletes trying to win a championship will scrap and claw. But the various fields of sport have rules intended to make sure that games or matches remain fair tests of skill and effort. If either side violates those rules with some form of cheating, the whole enterprise is corrupted and loses meaning.
Which raises a question now pertinent in North Carolina: How far is too far for politicians to go as they endeavor not only to win today, but also to set the rules so they and their party will be favored to win tomorrow and the next day and so on indefinitely?
What should be their duty to honor principles of fair play if by doing so, they risk loosening their grip on the power they’re using to advance their agenda – an agenda they claim is in the public interest?
In our state, conservative Republicans took control of the General Assembly in the elections of 2010. Virtually their first order of business was to redraw voting district boundaries for congressional and legislative seats to their party’s advantage.
Federal courts since have ruled that the two redistricting schemes relied on unconstitutional gerrymandering that devalued the votes of African-Americans. Those rulings are not final, but the pattern was set: Republican chiefs were willing to push the fairness envelope in their partisan zeal.
Once Republican Pat McCrory won the governorship in 2012, legislators ramped it up. The next year they enacted sweeping changes to voting laws that had the overall effect of making it less convenient for many people to vote – especially people who tend to favor Democrats. Again, federal judges have objected. Whether the case will make it to the Supreme Court is the focus of an ongoing high-level brouhaha pitting Cooper – who opposes pursuing the state’s appeal – against Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.
An elections oversight system that put state and county elections boards under control of the governor’s party was fine with GOP legislators during McCrory’s tenure. But when Cooper denied McCrory’s bid for a second term, that system suddenly wouldn’t do.
A law pushed through during December’s flurry of special sessions would put legislative appointees on an equal footing with the governor’s in the job of supervising the conduct of elections, including compliance with campaign finance rules. And as things now stand, the board’s partisan make-up would be evenly split.
Superficially fair, perhaps, but with the effect of salvaging a degree of influence Republicans otherwise would have lost with Cooper’s victory. Why would they go to such lengths unless they expected that degree of influence to be useful?
Five seats on the state Court of Appeals were at stake in November. The races were partisan, with candidates identified on the ballot by party. All five Republican candidates won (including Phil Berger Jr.).
One seat on the state Supreme Court also was contested. The two candidates were listed without party labels, although each party enthusiastically backed the candidate it favored – Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan for the Democrats, incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds for the Republicans.
Morgan was the winner, perhaps helped by the fact that his name was listed first. It didn’t take long for Republican leaders to make sure that Supreme Court candidates from now on would have their party affiliation shown. Of course the ballot says nothing about a candidate’s legal skills, experience, impartiality and independence.
Until quite recently, North Carolina was in the forefront of efforts to depoliticize its judiciary. Appellate judges were elected on a nonpartisan basis. Candidates could tap public funds to finance cost-controlled campaigns, helping minimize the role of special interests in filling seats on the bench. A nonpartisan guide distributed by the state to all voters summarized candidates’ credentials. That system produced a decent mix of Republican and Democratic judges.
The pendulum now is swinging hard in the other direction. Public campaign financing got the heave-ho from GOP legislators. All appellate judgeships will be filled in partisan races. And now there’s a Republican-backed bill that would do the same for every elected judgeship in the state – from the Superior Court judges who preside over criminal trials and complex civil matters to the judges in District Court who might have to decide whether you really were speeding.
Yes, even in District Court, for heaven’s sake. As if the choice of judges who will decide on a woman’s request for a domestic violence protective order, or on a child custody schedule, or on the level of someone’s alimony payments should take into account a party’s stance on policy issues – the financing of health care, for example. It makes no sense – except that Republican leaders evidently think their party label makes judicial candidates irresistible, and it helps their cause to elect as many candidates as possible. Will soil and water conservation supervisors be next?
Maybe not next. But that’s where the trend seems to be heading. In fact, another bill now circulating – also with Republican sponsors – would require partisan elections to fill seats on school boards and municipal councils.
This is a truly bad idea. It’s bad because it encourages the spread of big-time campaign spending, thus making it more difficult for ordinary citizens without strong party ties to run for quintessentially grass-roots offices.
It’s bad because it dilutes the focus on local issues, commingling them with state and national party platforms. It’s bad because it deepens partisan polarization and thus discourages compromise. It’s bad because it becomes much harder for people who are unaffiliated with either of the major parties to get on the ballot. Whether conservative or liberal, someone shouldn’t have to be a registered Republican or Democrat to serve on a town council or a school board.
Already, the parties typically make no secret of whom they favor for these positions. But Republican leaders think their candidates can get an even bigger boost if they essentially can advertise their party backing in the voting booth.
Maybe they’re right – but it’s a cynical gambit to attract voters who may know nothing else about a candidate except his or her name.
We can anticipate the rebuttal. It would sound like this: “Progressives object to election mechanisms favoring Republicans because, well, they’re Republicans! Conservatives! Democrats pulled the same kind of tricks when they were in charge!” (The Democratic impulse, especially with judgeships, was to make elections nonpartisan.)
Yet, policy implications aside, if that’s possible, laws meant to lock in a party’s election advantages are unfortunate because they tilt the civic playing field.
The tilt may not be illegal, in the way that cheating in sports would be against the rules. But it subverts the small-d democratic principles that every citizen’s vote should count the same; that candidates should be judged on more than their allegiance to an ideology; that voters have a duty to become well-informed about their choices and to support candidates – especially judicial candidates – not simply because of any such ideological ties.
It has to be said that the Council of Churches generally agrees with officeholders who favor, for example, ample and convenient access to the polls, fair and adequate taxes, and stringent laws against all manner of sex- and gender-based discrimination. To generalize, that profile does not match up well with the priorities of the North Carolina GOP’s present leadership.
There are reasons beyond that mismatch, however, to hope that partisanship in the state’s politics doesn’t continue to intensify, fanned by the kinds of election changes now being considered. This is about a democratic system functioning for the greater good. That can’t happen when one party insists on always getting its way and so rewrites the rules.